|Taking care of your own?
Stephen M. Reid, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE
How many of us have read something
like the following description?
It’s 2:00 a.m. on a cold and dreary Sunday
morning in early March. The tones have just sounded for an emergency
only blocks away from the fire station. Engine One responds and arrives
within minutes to find a working fire in a two-story residential structure
of balloon-frame construction. Moments later the chief arrives and
assumes command. More firefighting units arrive and assignments
are given. The tasks of rescue and extinguishment are underway. This
sounds a lot like the every day “Bread and Butter” operation. But...
Further into the fire, while evaluating
the firefighting efforts, a report comes in that a firefighter is missing.
Immediately, command performs a Personnel Accountability Report (PAR),
implements the departmental MAYDAY procedures and deploys the Rapid Intervention
Team. An exhaustive search is conducted and the missing firefighter
is located, however, resuscitation attempts prove to be nothing more than
an exercise in futility.
Whether the above is related to a fire
situation, a training accident, or an apparatus incident, stories such
as these occur all too often within the fire service. From 1992 through
2002, 1047 firefighters died in the line of duty, exclusive of the 347
who died in the line of duty at the World Trade Center on September 11,
2001. So far in 2003, 37 firefighters have died in the line of duty.
The following table gives an overview of
the number of on-duty deaths and injuries that occurred from 1991 to 2002.
FDNY 2001 fatalities are excluded.
|Now comes the dreadful task of honoring
one of our own. It will be ceremonious with the draped fire truck,
the scores of firefighters lined up in their Class A uniforms and the playing
of the bag pipes. However, did the firefighter properly plan for
such an event? Probably not, as 80% of the firefighters who have
made the supreme sacrifice failed to plan by executing a will or a living
trust. You ask, “Why do I need a will? I know what I’m doing
and nothing will happen to me.” Unfortunately, that’s all the more
reason to protect your loved ones.
What is a will? What is probate?
What is an executor/executrix? What is a living trust? What
is a living will? What are powers of attorney?
Some quick basic research on the internet
provided all of the answers to the above questions.
A will is a person’s expressed intention
of what should be done with their property after they die. Basically,
there are three types of wills:
A holographic will is handwritten, without
witnesses. Few states recognize holographic wills, and only in very
An oral will, also called a “nuncupative
will,” is only recognized in a few states and usually only in compelling
situations such as the impending death of a soldier in wartime.
A self-proving will is one that has been
witnessed and signed with all of the formalities required by state law.
A self-proving will saves a great deal of time and effort when it turns
out that one or more witnesses can’t be located or are themselves deceased.
You definitely need a will if you have
children. Even if you don’t, you probably need a will. Each
state has formal requirements for preparing and signing a will.
You must declare that the document you are
signing is your will
Your signature must be witnessed by at least
two or three witnesses, who must sign the will in each other’s presence
Each state has specific requirements
for how your signature and the signatures of the witnesses must be worded.
Since most everyone dies possessing
property, most everyone needs a will. State law decides what happens
to property in the estate of a person who dies without a will, intestate.
State law attempts to distribute the property according to what most people
want, but it doesn’t always work that way. The default plan normally
distributes property to relatives. Commonly, the spouse and children
of the decedent will take the property. If there is no spouse and/or
no children, the decedent’s parents will take property, then siblings,
grandparents, and children of the grandparents. If no close relation
can be found, the property will eventually belong to the state.
As part of the probate process, the creditors
of the decedent get first shot at the estate property, after certain allowances
for a spouse and children. Any property that is transferred by will is
subject to probate, which is the legal process of verifying your will through
the courts. Probate can be slow and costly. That’s why many
people choose to create a living trust to convey most of their property
to their loved ones. Forming a living trust makes sense for just
about everyone, but it’s important to realize that it does not prevent
probate - it only speeds up the probate process. You still need a
will that names an executor for your estate and a guardian for any minor
children. All wills must go through probate. Period!
The person who represents the estate is
called several different things, depending on state law. Traditionally,
the person appointed by a will to represent the estate is called the executor
(or executrix, if female). A person appointed by a court to represent
the estate of a person who doesn’t have a will is called a personal representative
The executor or personal representative
is charged with following state law in wrapping-up the decedent’s affairs.
Giving the proper notices to the proper parties
Collecting all the decedents’ property
Receiving claims against the estate
Paying just claims and disputing others
Distributing the estate property according
to the will or state law.
Along the way there may be other necessary
actions, like selling estate property to cover debts or allow for proper
distribution. There is usually a waiting period after the will is
filed before the executor can begin distributing the assets to those listed
in the will. This time allows creditors to come forward to declare
debts that may not be known to the executor simply by going through the
The executor is entitled to reasonable
compensation for his or her services, often limited to a certain percentage
of the property in the probate estate. The executor’s fee is usually
listed on the final report and must be approved by the probate court.
Interested parties can object if the fee appears to be excessive, considering
the time and effort expended by the executor.
Earlier I mentioned the term “Living Trust.”
A “trust” is a creature of law in which one party - called the “trustee”
- has legal ownership of property transferred to him/her by the person
making the trust (usually called the “grantor”). The trust assets
are invested and/or managed for the benefit of one or more beneficiaries.
Sometimes the grantor can also be a beneficiary of the trust, but can’t
be the only beneficiary.
Trusts can be “living” - established during
the grantor’s lifetime - or “testamentary” - established in a will.
Trusts that can be terminated or modified
at any time by the grantor for any reason are called “revocable.”
If a trust is called “irrevocable,” it can’t be changed or terminated under
In order to function, a trust must have
assets formally transferred to the trustee, with this title used in the
documents of ownership. Even when husband and wife serve as their
own trustees, real estate deeds and financial accounts must be re-titled
in order to be owned by the trust.
Next, one must consider a “Living Will”
which is vastly different from a “Living Trust.” By writing a living
will, sometimes called “health care directives,” you are basically exercising
your right to refuse treatment that would artificially prolong your life
in the event you become incapacitated. These are for adults of all
ages, not just the elderly. Some of the most famous court cases about
the right to die have involved those in the 20s.
There are good reasons to write down
your wishes about end-of-life medical care:
Different states have different rules for
what living wills should cover, but they all allow you to decline aggressive
life support if you are close to death, without affecting your right to
get pain medicine or other “comfort care.”
You might be too sick to express yourself
when the time comes
Your family might disagree about what to do,
which leaves doctors in a tough spot and more likely to keep you on life
You can help your family with the really tough
decision of whether or not to take you off life support
Living wills often include legal protection
for doctors and hospitals, so they don’t get sued for honoring your request.
Nor is refusing medical treatment considered
suicide; it is not illegal or immoral to let nature take its course.
Once your living will is signed, give
a copy of it to:
Your family physician
Consider giving a copy to your minister or
a member of your religious community, and to close friends as well
The hospital you’re likely to use. You
can mail it to their medical record’s department, with a cover letter that
gives your date of birth and your Social Security Number. Verify
that they have received the document and have a record of it.
If you are in a nursing home or are seeing
a medical specialist for a serious illness, they should get a copy, too.
There is no need to update a living
will. However, it is a good idea to check in a few years to see if
your state’s form has changed. It might be improved later, so you
would want to take advantage of these changes. Also, by signing a
new one, it shows you haven’t changed your mind.
POWERS OF ATTORNEY
Coupled with a will and an advance medical
directive, the durable power of attorney is for many people a superior
alternative to the simple living trust in planning for disability or incompetence.
These documents are more familiar to folks than the concept of a “trust,”
and their total cost is less than to prepare a trust.
A power of attorney is a document in which
you, as the “principal,” give authority to your “attorney-in-fact” (who
need not be a lawyer) to act on your behalf. The scope of the power
of attorney can be quite limited - for example, the purchase of a single
real estate investment - or almost unlimited. You can even grant
the power to make gifts of your property, but not to make a will.
All powers of attorney end at the death
of the principal.
A limited power of attorney can make business
or financial transactions much easier, simply by allowing a busy or absentee
party to send somebody to act in his or her place.
A durable power of attorney allows you
to delegate broad authority over your personal financial affairs, even
- especially - when you become disabled or incompetent.
An alternative to a durable power of attorney
is the springing power of attorney, which doesn’t become effective until
you are disabled.
In addition to a wide-ranging variety
of “standard” powers, discuss with your lawyer including the following
useful, but often overlooked, provisions in your power of attorney:
Should you keep your will current? Yes,
you should update your will whenever:
Power to handle tax matters and deal with
Power to handle retirement accounts and investments
A compensation clause detailing how much your
attorney-in-fact should be paid and from where the payment should come
Power to make gifts
Power to create and amend trusts for your
A will should be kept in a safe place such
as a bank safe deposit box or a fireproof safe at home, where it can be
easily located after your death.
In order to keep your will current, you
may revise it in one of the following manners:
You marry or divorce
You give birth to or adopt a child
When a family member or other beneficiary
of your estate dies
When someone you’ve named as an executor,
trustee or guardian is no longer able to fulfill that role
When you decide to change an executor, trustee
When you want to change the way your property
will be distributed
When you move to another state
When you net worth increases dramatically.
Making minor changes in what is called a “codicil,”
a formal amendment to the will
Preparing an entirely new will and thereby
revoking the prior one.
The above information is an overview of
a few of the various aspects of planning and taking care of your own and
is not intended to be legal advice. It merely conveys general information
related to legal issues commonly encountered.
Although making a will is a sobering experience,
your loved ones and friends will thank you for being so organized and thoughtful
ahead of time. For further information, the writer suggests that
you contact an attorney who specializes in this area of law for more in-depth
Additionally, some fire departments have
a legal plan which includes the writing of your will as part of their compensation
package. Oftentimes, these services are provided for a reduced fee
or for free, depending on the plan. Or you can write your own.
Software packages are available from various sources for less than $50.
Time is of the essence. Do yourself
and your loved ones a favor - take some time and have your will written
About the author: Stephen
M. Reid, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE has more than 35 years of experience in the
fire service having served in both a career and volunteer environment.
He began his career in a volunteer department and served on the management
staff in Montgomery County, MD. Chief Reid recently retired as the Director
of Emergency Medical Services with the District of Columbia Fire/EMS Department
in Washington, D.C. which serves a residential population of more than
525,000 and a daytime population of 1.5 million.
Chief Reid earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Fire Service Administration
from Western States University for Professional Studies, a Master of Administrative
Science degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University, and a Bachelor
Science degree in Fire Administration from The University of the District
Dr. Reid has extensive experience in fire protection and fire ground operations,
fire prevention and code enforcement, emergency medical services, hazardous
materials, national fire data, public fire education, personnel management,
training, budgeting, apparatus maintenance, purchasing, planning, and technical
writing. His scope of expertise includes both operations and administration.
As president of Stephen M. Reid
and Associates, Inc., his firm offers strategic analysis and planning
as well as customized training programs. Emergency service agencies, associations
and private industry are the target markets that focus on the following
areas: Fire/EMS Operations, Change Management, Master Planning, Incident
Command, Fire Station Design, Fire Incident Reporting, Contingency Planning,
and Public Information. He brings a strong commitment to service delivery
and participation at all levels in his approach.
Dr. Reid has served as an adjunct instructor at The University of the District
of Columbia and is currently an instructor with Command School, Inc. and
their famous Abbottville fire scenario simulator.
Dr. Reid is listed in Who’s Who in Public Service and is a Member of the
Institution of Fire Engineers, MIFireE, Great Britain. Additionally, he
has received the prestigious Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Commission
on Chief Fire Officer Designation which is in association with the International
Association of Fire Chiefs. Dr. Reid also belongs to the American Management
Association, Delta Sigma Pi Fraternity, International Association of Fire
Chiefs, National Fire Academy Alumni Association, National Fire Protection
Association, National Volunteer Fire Council, Society for Fire Protection
Engineers and the World Safety Organization.
Dr. Reid currently resides in Myersville, MD.